Inside Story

Gloves off

Beguiled by familiar photos, have we forgotten one of the first anti–Vietnam war groups?

Carolyn Collins Between the Lines 5 June 2021 860 words

The chain gang, as captured by the Canberra Times on 12 June 1970. The paper’s caption reads: “Anti-conscription demonstrators Mrs E. Gudgeon, left, Mrs F. Gaber, Mrs K. Coad, Mrs Y. Benjamin and Mrs E. Allison, hold up the chains with which they fastened themselves to railings inside Parliament House yesterday.”

In June 1970 twelve women strode into Parliament House and padlocked themselves to the railings of the public gallery in the House of Representatives. Business was suspended during the ensuing uproar (and a doctor called to examine a pregnant protester) but no one was arrested. Once freed, the women were offered a cup of tea and politely escorted from the building. The “chain gang” made headlines in the Canberra Times the next day but was then largely forgotten.

Those women were part of a movement that stretched back to 1965, when a group of Sydney women calling themselves Save Our Sons, or SOS, began protesting against conscription. They were swiftly dismissed as a bunch of eccentric housewives.

Every picture tells a story, but not necessarily the whole story. In the years since then, memories of Australia’s anti–Vietnam war movement have tended to focus on images of the huge moratorium marches, largely ignoring or downplaying the role of women. Coming across photos of the Sydney protesters almost fifty years later, I too thought I had them pegged, albeit more kindly, as a group of concerned middle-class mums.

As a mother of a teenage boy myself, it wasn’t hard to empathise with Joyce Golgerth, who formed the Sydney SOS after learning that her twenty-year-old son had been picked for conscription in the Menzies government’s conscription “lottery,” a crass spectacle involving an actual bingo barrel. And it was easy to understand why, after the organisation issued a “distress call — SOS — to mothers everywhere,” others were inspired to form their own groups in Townsville, Brisbane, Newcastle, Wollongong, Melbourne, Adelaide and Perth.

But the more I delved into my research, sifting through archives, ASIO files, newspapers, letters and interviews, the more it became clear that SOS involved much more than maternal outrage. Indeed, as the stories started tumbling out it seemed the entire history of the twentieth century was converging on this one phenomenon.

Black-and-white photographs of women in sensible shoes and matching handbags don’t do SOS justice. In my book, Save Our Sons: Women, Dissent and Conscription during the Vietnam War, I wanted to look at the stories behind the images, to present a more nuanced picture of this grassroots movement and of those who joined it.

As I soon learned, there was no typical SOS supporter; many weren’t even mothers. They were young and old; rich and poor; working and non-working; of all political and religious creeds; and they lived on farms and in cities and country towns. Some were well known in peace circles; others had never joined a cause in their lives.

Individual stories stood out: the television celebrity with the radical past; the ambulance driver (now a mother of ten) who had patrolled London during the Blitz; the German migrant whose husband had been part of the SS and who was determined not to be a “fellow traveller” again. I read heartbreaking letters from women who were still living with the fallout from previous wars. One, who had lost all her close male relatives in the second world war, now had two sons of conscription age.

It became clear that history hadn’t given SOS its due: it was one thing to march with thousands of others in 1970, but a different matter altogether to picket an army barracks in 1966. Indeed, SOS was one of the first groups to protest against conscription, and one of the last to put its banners away.

For almost eight years, supporters worked tirelessly, often behind the scenes, assisting young men and their families, and fighting for civil liberties along the way. As the war dragged on, some became more radical: scandalising Melbourne Cup–goers in scanty anti-war fashions; hijacking an evangelical rally; holding parties to fill in false conscription papers; and setting up a series of safe houses to hide draft resisters.

The year following the Canberra protest, five SOS members were jailed after staging a sit-in at a Commonwealth office in Melbourne. Politician and moratorium leader Jim Cairns would later describe it as a turning point in the anti-war campaign (and apologise for not mentioning SOS in his memoirs).

Protesting came at a personal cost. SOS women were followed by ASIO and faced widespread hostility, sometimes within their own families. One woman’s workmates poured hot tea on her (she resigned at once). When ridicule didn’t work, SOS women were derided as communist dupes, bad mothers and neglectful wives.

More surprising was the bitterness of other women; one declared SOS “a disgrace to womanhood,” and members clashed publicly with “white mouse” Nancy Wake, the Australian war hero.

Pinpointing SOS’s legacy is difficult, but as well as their practical contributions, there can be no doubt that these “respectable” women helped widen the appeal of the anti-war movement and made public dissent more acceptable. After SOS, some adopted new causes, including the women’s movement; a few moved into politics. Others, like ballet teacher Edna Gudgeon, quietly resumed their former lives. Asked why she had joined the Canberra chain gang, she summed up the frustration of the times: “Because I cannot seem to reach this government in any other way.” •